NJ Goes to Washington Again — But Why?

For years, the question “Why can’t government run like a business?” was a popular refrain from those frustrated by bureaucracy and inefficiencies in the public sector.

But that was before the days of corporate bailouts.

These days, a Wall Street pedigree no longer carries the weight it once did. We’ve all learned that big business doesn’t run as smoothly as we may have thought – and one need not be an MBA to notice the inefficiencies.

Take for example the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Walk to Washington. Every year, a chartered Amtrak train takes some 1,500 people from New Jersey to the nation’s capital for the event, which provides an opportunity to network and attend a dinner with members of the state’s Congressional delegation.

All of that is well and good, but why go to Washington to do it? Those who participate in this annual event leave New Jersey at midday Thursday, spend a few hours on a train and then head to the Marriott Wardman where the evening’s festivities take place. Before noon the next day, they’re back on a train heading home. There’s little time to see or experience much of Washington other than train stations and hotel ballrooms – and you can find plenty of those right here in New Jersey.

Strictly from an efficiency standpoint, it doesn’t make sense. The event costs $560 for chamber members and $660 for non-members. With 1,500 people attending, that’s a total expense of $840,000 — if they all are Chamber members. And that doesn’t include the price of hotel rooms at the Marriott. If this same group of people got together for networking and dinner someplace in New Jersey, it would cost a whole lot less – and it’s not like they would miss out on seeing the sights in Washington because most of them don’t get to do that anyway.

But wouldn’t they miss their opportunity to network with the New Jersey Congressional delegation? Not really. The truth is, with 1,500 attendees, the dinner is hardly an intimate affair. The odds of catching the ear of a U.S. Senator or Congressional representative for a meaningful discussion are slim.

All things considered, it would make more sense — both in terms of efficiency and cost — if the state’s two U.S. Senators and 13 Congressional representatives came to New Jersey — instead of 1,500 people traveling to Washington. Besides, we’re all thinking green these days. How much energy is used when an Amtrak train filled with 1,500 people makes a round trip from New Jersey to Washington?

Throughout its long history and tradition, the Chamber’s Walk to Washington has had its fair share of critics. Good government groups contend it gives lobbyists an unfair advantage to influence legislators. The party atmosphere and heavy drinking on the train also have come under criticism at times – especially from women who claim that some of those doing the networking literally get too close for comfort.

This year, Governor Christie and his staff are skipping the trip. “We have too much work to do, candidly, to take a couple of days off to go down and schmooze with political folks and business leaders,” the new Governor told reporters.

While no one can question the volume of work confronting the Christie Administration, the seeds of his decision to take a pass on the Chamber trip may have been planted a while ago when the organization took actions that did not sit well with Christie.

In defense of the Chamber, there is an intangible benefit to the Walk to Washington that cannot be quantified. Even in today’s technological world of email and social networking, there is a value in face-to-face contact and the personal relationships it fosters.  As Michael Winerip explained in a New York Times column about the changes technology has brought to the workplace, “…the core of my job — going out and talking in person to strangers about their stories — has not changed at all, is no easier. I heard the same thing from my brothers-in-law in real estate and office furniture, and from my father-in-law in insurance. They still must travel by car, taxi, subway, plane, and meet the clients to build the bonds that close the sales at the core of their labor.”

With 1,500 people taking part in the Walk to Washington, odds are there will be a few deals that get closed on the train or at the dinner – and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s good for business, it’s good for the economy, and it’s good for New Jersey.

But if there is a better and more efficient way to get those deals done, it may be time to think about doing things differently.

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One Response to NJ Goes to Washington Again — But Why?

  1. Richard Esperon says:

    Mr. Lee makes a great deal of sense. Given the state of the state the money would be better spent here in the Garden State than on AMTRAK and in DC.

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